A swollen abdomen might not seem like much of a scary problem. But it can be a sign of a life-threatening emergency. So how does one tell the difference?
Understanding potential causes and looking at the big picture comes in handy.
Distention is an enlargement or swelling from internal pressure.MedicineNet
Acute or chronic?
The severity and speed of onset of your dog’s symptoms reflect the level of urgency. In other words, if it looks terrible and happens fast, you need to act quickly. In fact, with some emergencies, hours and even minutes matter.
Gradual abdominal distention
If your dog’s belly expands slowly, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay a visit to your veterinarian. But you don’t have to rush to a veterinary ER. In general, you can make a regular appointment with your veterinarian.
Let’s put aside obesity and pregnancy, which are self-explanatory. What other important health conditions result in an expanding belly in your dog?
Severe infestation with intestinal parasites is most common in puppies. And yes, the puppy’s gut can harbor enough worms to cause a pot-bellied appearance.
Don’t shrug it off! Keep in mind that they steal either blood or nutrients from the puppy, and enough of them can be life-threatening.
Depending on the type of worm, other symptoms of intestinal parasites include:
- loss of appetite
- pale gums
Cushing’s disease is one of the conditions that can cause a pot-belly appearance. The two contributing factors are:
- fat shifting into the abdomen
- weakening of abdominal muscles
Other symptoms of Cushing’s disease include:
- increased thirst
- increased urination/potty accidents
- skin and coat changes
- slow wound healing
Logically, benign or cancerous tumors anywhere within the abdomen or organs can cause abdominal enlargement.
Acute abdominal distention
Food bloat versus gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV)
For example, your dog just broke into a bag of kibble or biscuits. Or they otherwise helped themselves to an unusual volume of food. Their stomach will expand. The creative term for that is food bloat.
It is the same thing that might happen to you after a Thanksgiving dinner. And since you’re still here reading the article, chances are your dog will also be fine.
They also might not be. So here is what the difference is.
Gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV)
As a result of all that food, the stomach will expand–dilate. It will cause your dog discomfort and digestive upset. If you’re lucky, that might be it.
The big trouble ensues when this enlarged stomach manages to turn around on itself. Not only that it is extremely full, but everything that is in there becomes trapped. With all the digestive action in there, it will continue to expand, becoming more and more painful. Eventually, the expanded stomach will
- cut off blood flow
- compromise breathing
- and the stomach can even rupture.
The medical term for it is gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV). GDV s a dire emergency. Hours and even minutes can mean the difference between the life and death of your dog.
Some breeds are more predisposed to suffer from this problem; do you know whether your dog is on the list?
Other symptoms of bloat include:
- pacing and restlessness
- unproductive retching (trying to vomit with nothing coming out)
- excessive drooling (sometimes accompanied by lip-smacking)
- panting, heavy breathing
- difficulty breathing
- rapid heart rate
- stance with extended neck and elbows pointed outward
- pale mucus membranes
This is the mother of all emergencies.
Without immediate veterinary care, your dog will die. The treatment involves managing shock, stabilizing your dog’s heart, and decompressing their stomach, followed by surgery.
If untreated, GDV can kill your dog within an hour.
A closet full of boogeymen
A rupture or puncture of your dog’s stomach or intestine can cause another life-threatening problem–peritonitis. Peritonitis is inflammation of the lining of your dog’s abdominal cavity. Most commonly because of bacteria that spilled out from the wound.
Peritonitis, too, is extremely painful and dangerous. It requires intensive, aggressive treatment. Some of the causes of peritonitis include:
- abdominal injury
- perforated intestine
- liver abscess
- severe pancreatitis
- a ruptured organ such as gallbladder or urinary bladder
Other symptoms of peritonitis include:
- loss of appetite
- black stools
- pale gums
- increased heart rate or arrhythmias
Internal bleeding or fluid build-up
Your dog’s stomach can swell up from internal bleeding or fluid build-up. As you can guess, regardless of the cause, this too is scary and dangerous stuff.
Blood accumulation in the abdomen can be from trauma, a bleeding disorder, or some types of tumors. A splenic tumor, for example, can rupture and bleed into the abdomen.
Excess fluid in the abdomen can be a common side-effect of some types of
- heart disease
- liver disease
- kidney disease
- severe gastrointestinal disease
- low blood protein levels that lead to fluid leaking out of the blood vessels
Severe uterine infection, pyometra is another life-threatening condition that can cause abdominal distention.
There are two types of pyometra – open and closed. These distinctions are about whether or not the cervix remains open.
If the cervix stays open, pus can drain out of the body. However, with closed pyometra, there is no discharge. Instead, all the pus has nowhere to drain and collects in the uterus. All along, the bacteria release toxins that enter the bloodstream.
Other signs of pyometra include:
- vaginal discharge (with open pyometra)
- loss of appetite
- increased thirst and urination
In conclusion, the more acute and severe your dog’s symptoms, the faster you need to see a vet.
Swollen belly rarely happens in isolation. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.
Bloat in Dogs: What It Is, the Symptoms, and Treatment